No Man Happy Until He’s Dead

You might be done with the past, but the past is not through with you.

Simon Critchley had a conversation with Philip Seymour Hoffman in December. The two men talked about happiness, drawing equally from academic philosophy and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.

The question of death and one’s legacy in relation to happiness appears when Critchley paraphrases Sophocles, “No man happy until he is dead” (12:45). In Oedipus Rex, the chorus is the final arbiter of happiness. Critchley uses this to equate happiness with glory, on the Greek view: Happy are they who eschew pleasure for the sake of an immortal reputation.

Hoffman adamantly rejects this Nietzschean beatitude. But the phrase “no man happy until he is dead” has an older provenance in Greek tragedy. In the Oresteia it comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, not the chorusFor Aeschylus it inoculates us against optimism. Tragedy can erupt out of the past even in the lives of the theretofore most fortunate person.

The conversation took place in the wake of a crisis. The setting is three days after the mass murder of children that took place at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Hoffman reflects that his greatest happiness is enjoying the presence of his children. The wise epicurean is aware that happiness must be sought as contentment with fragile and simple pleasures. Reflecting on a national tragedy, Hoffman presages his own “sick” search for pleasure: “There’s no pleasure that I haven’t actually made my self sick on. And so I look at pleasure and kind of get scared.”

In all-too-obvious ways, this conversation puts the tragedy of Hoffman’s untimely death in sharp relief. A haunted man talks calmly and articulately about his doom for forty-five minutes. When the conversation starts to lull at the end, Hoffman surprises Critchley with an emphatic question. What does Montaigne mean that ‘learning how to die’ is ‘learning how to live’? 

Critchley’s gloss is that philosophy unmasks the world as a “counterfeit eternity”. Devoid of ritual, our culture flees death. Christians, in contrast, long meditated on Christ crucified. At this point, Hoffman brings up the Church in a more humane light: a “place to go” when we have no understanding.

The conversation fades out soon afterwards.

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2 responses to “No Man Happy Until He’s Dead

  1. The Montaigne quote will keep me thinking for days. Perhaps he meant that learning not to fear death, or acceptance of the fact that life ends in death, is the beginning of understanding how to live ones life. Whether, or how, one accepts death perhaps depends on one’s belief system–religion/faith based or not (mine’s the latter). But the “work” may not end there. Perhaps the answer lies in the arrival at an understanding of how life and death are connected. Mindful living–being aware of each moment of life and enjoying to fullest (it ain’t easy and I’m not good at it…)–is my answer.

  2. “Then it is a fact, Simmias, that true philosophers make dying their profession”

    Socrates
    Phaedo, 67e

    Ran across this last night after reading your post. Montaigne is drawing from an esteemed ethical/ ontological tradition here.

    Whoever tries to save his life will lose it…

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